Iowa Senate report: No 'provable' sexual harassment incidents
Several staffers tell of sexually suggestive comments, some by senators
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James Q. Lynch
Investigators heard several reports of sexually suggestive comments by Iowa Republican caucus staff members and senators, but found no “provable” incidents of sexual harassment in the state Senate, a review released Friday shows.
The three-page report features staff members’ recollections of at least seven incidents of sexually suggestive or offensive comments, but no allegations of physical harassment. The report reveals two incidents in which what appears to be senators made offensive comments, but their names are censored.
The report “shows the workplace culture needs to improve,” according to Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, who originally had refused to release it.
The internal investigation followed former staff member Kirsten Anderson’s successful sexual harassment lawsuit this summer that resulted in a $1.75 million settlement to be paid by taxpayers.
Anderson was the Republican caucus communications director between 2008 and 2013 when she was fired hours after lodging a sexual harassment complaint. Leaders cited poor work performance as the reason for her dismissal.
During Anderson’s trial, GOP Senate staff members testified to ongoing sexual harassment, which led to the internal inquiry of allegations from December 2012 to now. Current members of the staffs of the Republican Senate caucus and the Secretary of the Senate were interviewed between July 25 and Aug. 7.
The leaders, who have brought in former ambassador and Senate President Mary Kramer to help them address what Anderson described at trial as a “toxic” environment, said workplace culture at the Senate “can improve, and with a lot of hard work, it will improve.”
But Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, found the report “deeply troubling” because investigators heard about senators making sexually suggestive comments as recently as the 2017 legislative session — after Dix and other GOP leaders said they had zero tolerance for such behavior.
“The report will increase the disgust that Iowans feel about the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against Kirsten Anderson and other legislative staff,” Petersen said in a statement. “The report paints a picture of an environment in the Iowa Senate that will lead to more lawsuits against Republicans senators and staff unless dramatic changes are made.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, who earlier called for the report to be released, said Friday that the governor had no comment.
In releasing the report Friday, Whitver and Dix said they were trying to balance two competing concerns: openness and protecting staff.
“The first concern is to be open with Iowans about the workplace issues in the Iowa Senate,” they said in a statement.
Names were redacted from the report because “to improve the workplace culture, employees need to know they can share their concerns without those issues being shared publicly.”
“Publicizing those individuals could have a chilling effect on the willingness of employees to make reports of future incidents,” they added.
Whitver and Dix also shared a letter from the Des Moines law firm of Ahlers Cooney advising them to black out the names of employees because participation in the investigation related to job conduct and performance would be confidential information under Iowa law.
The attorneys also advised that senators’ names should be redacted because under Iowa law, “personal information in personnel records of government bodies relating to identified or identifiable individuals who are officials, officers or employees of government bodies” is protected.
In their investigation, Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson and Whitver’s senior aide Mary Earnhardt looked at incidents and comments in and by the Senate caucus staff and office environment, the Senate floor environment and the Secretary of the Senate staff.
Among the findings:
l An staff member said an person made a sexually suggestive comment during the 2013 legislative session.
l Another provided copies of handwritten documentation of offensive comments within the GOP staff office that occurred after December 2012.
l A person “specifically noted” a sexually explicit story told by a fellow staff member. The staff member asked that the story be stopped.
The report notes that documentation of the events was provided, but it was not included in the materials released.
l A member of the Secretary of the Senate staff indicated a person “overheard what could possibly be interpreted as harassment,” but declined to give specifics.
l Many caucus staff members indicated there is an environment on the Senate floor of senators “making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences.”
l One recalled one occasion of a senator making a sexually suggestive comment in 2017.
l Another detailed a story about a senator making sexually suggestive comments regarding proposed legislation on dense breast tissue.
l There were other reports involving former senators.
Some staff members told investigators they feared retaliation, say that is why they did not feel comfortable reporting harassment. Other staffers, however, said they were comfortable reporting potential harassment.
The investigators said that, in conclusion, “it does not appear that any provable incidents of sexual harassment as defined in Section 17 of the Personnel Guidelines have occurred.”
Democratic leader Petersen said the report by a political appointee and a Republican staffer confirms her belief that an independent, outside investigation is needed.
“We called on all senators to work together to fix this problem,” she said. “Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have ignored the calls for action by refusing to fire any of their staff or to make any changes in their leadership.”
The report can be found here.
l Comments (319) 398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com